No place like home

Every so often – it seems like about once every three weeks, but maybe it’s only at Ideal Home Show time of year – some media researcher or other rings up and asks what the house of the future is going to look like. They want me to tell them something like this: by the Year 2050 we will all be living in dichroic ETFE foil cushicles, bouncing gently, but harmlessly across a car-free rural landscape. Naturally, we will all be permanently on-line, probably with a miniaturised modem implanted into our skulls, a tiny aerial woven into one ear lobe, and a head-up display available on the insides of our eye lenses.

Some of the researchers also want a social dimension. They want me to tell them that, because everyone in 2050 is thus electronically permanently in contact with everyone else, there is no misunderstanding, hence no war. Meanwhile, disease will have been bred out of the human gene pool in an organic process somehow involving slime moulds.

Alternatively, the researchers want me to tell them that all this utopian stuff will be available only to the wealthy few: in the meantime, a scary Mad Max-style underclass will roam the world, smelly and hairy, puncturing the cushicles of the fortunate ones, giving them modem-induced nightmares, and generally being jolly bad sports. But among them (this is getting a bit out of hand now) will be a real person, a Messiah figure, who believes in real love and human responses and who manages to reconcile both the bad-tooth underclass and the sanitised, cyborg-like technofolk, by establishing a new world order based on trust and co-operation. The Hollywood version will have lots of sex: think Michael York and Jenny Agutter in Logan’s Run.

That’s what they want me to tell them. Or if not quite all that, then at any rate that we will all be living in shiny, non-rectilinear pods with bloody clever toasters. Oh, and do I by any chance have any pictures to support the article, or failing that, what was the name of those architects who did the Teletubby house for a Labour MP?

I could have fun with these people (read the above), but usually I restrain myself. Usually, I say this: the house of the future will look exactly like the house of today. This is based on the observation that the house of today looks exactly like the house of yesterday, and that this is now as true of social housing as it is of private homes.

I explain to them the principles of late 19th century philanthropic housing, and point out how such developments today are now not only funded in the same way as they were a century ago, but have returned to pretty much the same size, layout and access arrangements of a century ago. As for the private sector, I say, put your money on half-timbering and chimneys. Tudorbethan will be very big in 2050, as it was in 1950 when all the critics were so snooty about it.

The architect Robert Adam – that’s today’s living classicist, not the dead one of the same name – once did a revealing study showing just how much of every speculatively-built private home is effectively prefabricated. Housebuilding is a more sophisticated industry than you might imagine – it’s just that the sophistication is all to do with the process, and nothing whatever to do with the appearance of the finished product.

I thought of Adam when I went to see some very clever engineers at the Ove Arup partnership recently. They have designed a prefabricated concrete-panel housebuilding system. It has all been modelled and costed: the design work includes the factory that will make the components, and the machines within it. Houses built this way will be assembled from a few slot-together boxes delivered from the factory. They will be much quicker, hence cheaper, to build. Needless to say, bits like bathrooms and kitchens will be delivered to site ready-fitted.

All of this is just to increase the efficiency of building a conventional-looking house. It is not concerned with radical new ways of living, or for that matter anything with too much of a curve to it. The 21st century prefab house built this way will very probably be neo-Georgian on the outside. So they tell me, though they have brought in outside architects and car stylists in an attempt to make the end result look different. From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t, really.

So the next time I get the “house of the future” phone call, I shall simply say: don’t just take it from me. The world’s greatest engineers have now checked this one out, and they agree: houses will go on looking just the same. But they’ll have bloody clever toasters in them.

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